There Oughta Be a Law

I was in San Diego, recently, and had the opportunity to walk along one of the city's heralded parks, Embarcadero Marina Park. This tiny green-space is wedged between the hotel massifs and the Pacific Ocean. It meanders along the waterfront up to the flanks of the USS Midway—now a museum anchored there. The water scene I viewed for a distance of more than a mile was littered with transport packaging material—others called it trash.

I was not the only person concerned with the junk wedged in rocks and bobbing in the water. Another fellow taking the walk said, with disgust in his voice, "There oughta to be a law against all that crap in the water."

I was not in a mood to engage this guy in conversation, however, I told him there was a law—sort of—and the problem was not really the stuff in the water. It was people who toss it there. End of conversation.

A proposed law in California—and it's being viewed as model legislation for the rest of the country—is technically known as Assembly Bill 820. It was tweaked a bit again in April and is currently waiting to come up for a vote. Its passage could have a major impact on transport packaging material from manufacturers of the material clear through to the end users.

Assembly Member Betty Karnette introduced the legislation earlier this year. It requires every rigid plastic container sold or offered for sale in the state meet certain recycling requirements. It also calls on the California Integrated Waste Management Board to study the use and disposal of polystyrene, "which includes how polystyrene is used in ... transport packaging ... ."

There's an adage that says: Two things you should never watch being created are sausage and legislation. In this case, although the wording is a bit awkward, the flavor is distinctive. Some cities in California (Malibu and Berkeley to name a couple) have already successfully banned expanded polystyrene (EPS aka plastic peanuts) used in food containers. Apparently studies have indicated the majority of the mess in streams and ocean beach areas comes from food containers, so these are the primary target. My observation of what I saw in the water in San Diego, however, is that electronic products packaging is not far behind in volume, with EPS loose fill close behind.

Closer reading of this legislation does not make it out to be as Draconian as some people have told me. Transport packaging folks, however, should be paying attention. First, it does not recommend that all polystyrene products be banned. The committee's preliminary report notes that banning a product usually has minimal impact as a long-term solution. What the bill suggests is that politicians and "stakeholders" (as compared with steak holders, I suppose) "work with manufacturers and others ... to promote additional manufacturer responsibility and product stewardship of polystyrene."

Hmmm. This wording is interesting. Takeit-back legislation (which is what this feels like to me), common in European Union countries (as well as Toronto, Canada's "user-responsibility" fees levied against corrugated), is beginning to wash up on the shores of America in greater numbers. The problem I have with much "user-responsible" legislation is that it targets the wrong user. It's unfair to burden manufacturers of transport packaging material, be they plastic container makers or wood pallet producers, for how their customers dispose of the end product. Any meaningful environmental legislation has to begin with education about tossing trash. That education has to include reuse and recycling. The challenge, of course, is that you can't legislate morality.

Clyde Witt has been reporting on transport packaging issues and trends for more than 20 years.

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